Sunday assorted links

How to extract information from on-line reviews, or why Star Wars is still a thing

Online reviews promise to provide people with immediate access to the wisdom of the crowds. Yet, half of all reviews on Amazon and Yelp provide the most positive rating possible, despite human behaviour being substantially more varied in nature. We term the challenge of discerning success within this sea of positive ratings the ‘positivity problem’. Positivity, however, is only one facet of individuals’ opinions. We propose that one solution to the positivity problem lies with the emotionality of people’s opinions. Using computational linguistics, we predict the box office revenue of nearly 2,400 movies, sales of 1.6 million books, new brand followers across two years of Super Bowl commercials, and real-world reservations at over 1,000 restaurants. Whereas star ratings are an unreliable predictor of success, emotionality from the very same reviews offers a consistent diagnostic signal. More emotional language was associated with more subsequent success.

Here is more from Matthew D. Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, and Loran F. Nordgren, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Grseeycor4

Recommended.

India China Canada fact of the day

Kolkata has long been home to India’s largest Chinese community. At its peak, when Calcutta (as it then was) was the capital of imperial India, it was home to 50,000 ethnic Chinese…

Yet the Chinese community is wilting, anyway. It now numbers perhaps 2,500. Many more “Calcutta Chinese” live in Markham, a city in Canada, than in Kolkata.

Here is more from The Economist.

Saturday assorted links

1. Your Ponzi career?

2. People systematically overlook subtractive changes.  And a Patrick Collison comment: “An obvious point that took me way too long to appreciate: in software engineering, you should probably optimize for speed even when you don’t have to, because it’s one of the easiest/best ways to prioritize subtraction and parsimony in the solution space.”

3. Against alcohol.

4. Ezra Klein interviews Brian Deese about the economic thinking of the Biden Administration (with transcript).  A good instantiation of “where they are at.”

5. Various observations on the Biden corporate tax plan.

6. ‘Sense of Disappointment’ on the Left as the N.Y.C. Mayor’s Race Unfolds.” (NYT)  Again, I’m going to double down on my earlier claim that the progressive Left has peaked (which is not to claim that statism has peaked, it hasn’t).  This is NYC people!

7. Fact and fiction about Ethiopia’s ethnofederalism?  The content is hardly controversial to most readers I suspect, or even deeply committal on main issues, but the author chose anonymity nonetheless, which is itself a meta-comment on the piece’s own topic.

8. Map of all the physics particles and forces, highly useful, good explication, I don’t find any of this stuff intuitive.  “Strangely, there are no right-handed W bosons in nature.”  What is wrong with you people!?  Why can’t it all be windowless monads?  Or is it?

Which are the most striking elements of Monkey Pong?

Watch this if you haven’t already:

What comes to your mind is an interesting kind of Rorschach test.  A few options (not necessarily endorsed by me) are:

1. Where did they get that background from?

2. Can I have some of what that monkey is drinking?

3. Wealth concentrations are going to make IRB regulations less relevant over time.

4. How many people want to play Pong against a wired monkey?  Will we employ or enslave monkeys to enable this?  What is in fact the relevant difference?

5. What else can that monkey (cognitively) do better than I can?

6. Which regulatory agency will have jurisdiction over the (presumably disabled) humans who want this as a medical treatment?  What about the non-disabled humans?  The Navy pilots?

7. Where does this all end?

8. Will this raise or lower the price of monkeys?

What else?

New York City estimate of the day

In only a year, the market value of office towers in Manhattan, home to the country’s two largest central business districts, has plummeted 25 percent, according to city projections released on Wednesday, contributing to an estimated $1 billion drop-off in property tax revenue.

JPMorgan Chase, Ford Motor, Salesforce, Target and more are giving up expensive office space, and others are considering doing so. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, the largest private-sector employer in New York City, wrote in a letter to shareholders this week that remote work would “significantly reduce our need for real estate.” For every 100 employees, he said, his bank “may need seats for only 60 on average.”

Here is more from The New York Times.  And this is with vaccination proceeding apace, and recovery well within sight.  It is going to be a very different New York City.

From Charles Kenny

Friends: I’m writing to tell you about my latest book and ask you to take a look (and share the news).

Your World, Better is written for the smart and engaged middle school student.  It looks at how America and the World has changed since the reader’s parents and grandparents were young: what has happened to health and wealth, homes, school and work, rights and democracy, war and the environment, happiness and depression.   It talks about the things that have gotten better, the sometimes-intensifying challenges that remain, and what readers can do about them.  (Some of you might hear echoes of my earlier book Getting Better –it is a source, but this is a very different text).

I wrote it because my (middle school age) elder daughter’s friends appear largely of the opinion that everything is terrible, and after the last eighteen months it is a little hard to blame them for thinking that. Your World Better is optimistic, but it doesn’t shy away from the considerable problems we face: from inequality through discrimination and depression to climate change and infectious threats.  It is meant to encourage kids to help make the world better: tip them from hopelessness toward action, not into complacency.  I hope you think I get the balance right.

The pdf of Your World Better is available to download in my blog for free.  Or you can buy a kindle version for 99 cents or a hard copy for $8.10.  Any author royalties from those sales will be donated to UNICEF.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser.  I believe you need to have read Walser first, but if so this is a far better biography than what you might have expected the English-speaking world to have produced.  It is also an implicit portrait of where pre-WWI Europe went wrong, the history of micro-writing, and a paean to general weirdness, noting that Walser in both his life and writing is inexplicable to this day.

2. Andy Grundberg, How Photography Became Contemporary Art.  How does a whole genre rise from also-ran status to a major (the major?) form of contemporary art?  This is an excellent history with nice color plates and it is also a causal account.  I liked this sentence, among others: “Surprisingly, the acceptance of color photography had happened earlier in the art world than in the so-called art photography world.”  Polaroid had a significant role as well.

3. Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.  A truly good and very substantive management book (I hear your jaw hitting the floor).  Just that statement makes it one of the best management books ever.  Really.

4. Tom Jones, George Berkeley: A Philosophical Life.  A thorough biography of an 18th century Irish philosopher who is still worth reading.  Berkeley also wrote on monetary theory and pioneered the idea of an abstract unit of account.

5. Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning through Covid-19.  This book came out yesterday, I read it earlier, and here is my blurb: “A truly excellent book that explains where our pandemic response went wrong, and how we can understand those failings using the tools of economics.”  It is published by Cato, a libertarian think tank, and it is a much better and more integrated and science-based account than what you might find from other groups, whether libertarian or non-libertarian.

How should you feel if you attentively finish Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment?

Cameron Blevis, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, is a good book and on a more important topic than you might think.

Additional Thursday assorted links

1. Will Greenland let China mine there?

2. How regulators are starting to think about Coinbase.  And interpreting bitcoin as a better chain letter.

3. Neopronouns: “but what does thon think?”  And today’s Ezra Marcus NYT piece on neopronouns is first-rate.  Can I use “Tyler” as my neopronoun?  Can I choose to be pronounless?: “Instead of using third person pronouns, a nullpronominal person is usually referred to by name, or can be referred to with an epithet, or the sentence can be rephrased to omit pronouns, typically by using the passive voice.”  I like that, should I put it on my Twitter profile?

4. Ezra Klein (NYT) has a very good take on the Biden administration, though I would frame the described truths in a quite negative manner.  I would say that in essence they are making decisions based on their own sociology and class and conformism, and also on the basis of what they think (poorly informed) voters want, rather than focusing on scientific reasoning and trying to see that through.  And whatever problems economics might have, including as a predictive tool, one does not do better with those who are trying to take its place.  Further interpretation from Ezra here.

5. Bryan Caplan turns fifty, and what did he do in his forties?

6. More on muons.  Best treatment so far.

Vaccine passport sentences to ponder

From New York State:

Using Excelsior Pass is entirely voluntary, but it requires learning about the state’s system and mastering a few different websites and apps. It took me 20 minutes over Zoom to help an octogenarian set up his pass, though it was certainly simpler than mastering vaccine-appointment websites. And even when we thought we understood the system, Excelsior Pass didn’t always work: My tech-reporter colleague tried to use it to enter Yankee Stadium, but the system didn’t update with his clearance until after the game was over…

Testing Excelsior Pass, what surprised me most was how easy it is to fake. When you first sign up for your QR code on the state website, it asks a handful of questions based on your vaccination and testing records. But after that, you’re on the honor system — you can add the QR code to any phone without any more challenge questions.

Designed by IBM, here is the full story.  I get that different parts of the country (Michigan…surge vaccine supply!) may need to proceed at different speeds, but basically it is time to plan a full reopening, and it seems that vaccine passports are more likely to hinder than to help achieve that end.

Thursday assorted links

From the comments, on Covid and our response

It is simply not a tenable policy to oppose pandemic lockdowns on the premise that COVID-19 only negatively affects a certain portion of the population. First, the fact that COVID-19 disproportionately killed the elderly was not something that was readily apparent right out of the box, when the virus was spreading rapidly. Hindsight is 20-20. Second, focusing solely on mortality is short-sighted given that approximately one-third of all people who get over COVID-19 suffer “long haul” symptoms that persist for months and may even be permanent in some. We cannot simply claim that the non-elderly have no reason to fear COVID-19.

So far, COVID-19 has killed more Americans than we lost in World War II, and it took the war five years to do what the virus did in one year. Even though the majority of the deaths were 65+, these are staggering numbers. Losing well over 100,000 people under the age of 65 in one year alone is nothing to sneeze at, and that’s with lock-downs and other harsh measures being taken. A “let them live their lives” approach would doubtlessly have escalated those numbers greatly.

The best early policy for any pandemic is to ramp up rapid testing as fast as possible, and test people constantly. A widespread testing regime (like in South Korea) would allow uninfected people to live more or less normally, while stifling the spread of the virus by identifying infected people quickly so they can immediately quarantine and prevent further spread. [Alex’s] earlier post on Testing and the NFL is instructive on that point. Such a testing regime could have enabled us to avoid harsher measures later on. But, unfortunately, America was led at the time by a president who did not prioritize testing (and in fact discouraged it to hide the spread of the virus) and sought to pooh-pooh its danger, shrugging off even the slightest mitigation efforts, like masks. Even after he got it, and was hospitalized, almost put on a ventilator, he acted as though it was nothing. That leadership caused a dangerous cognitive dissonance in public perceptions of COVID-19 — a dissonance that is causing people to take unreasonable risks, refuse to get vaccinated, and otherwise take actions that will make it even harder for us to get out from under this pandemic.

Focusing on the Great Barrington Declaration itself, the big problem with its approach is that it presumes that “herd immunity” will naturally occur with COVID-19 at some point. The evidence indicates, however, that natural infection does not lead to permanent immunity. The worse a person’s symptoms from COVID-19, the longer their immunity lasts, but that’s it. The only immunity that is possible now is through vaccination, and even that will require yearly updates as the virus mutates as it is already doing. Eventually we will have it under control. But the suggestion that people under 65 can just safely infect themselves into herd immunity is likely an impossibility, and certainly not a good enough foundation to rest any pandemic policy on. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00728-2

None of this is meant to minimize or challenge the obvious economic and mental health effects of certain pandemic policies. There are a great many costs being imposed by lock-downs and other policies. Businesses are failing and not coming back, jobs are being permanently lost, people are feeling isolated, on and on. All of that is tragic, and could have been largely avoided had we aggressively pursued testing (especially rapid-result testing) from the outset. When the next pandemic comes, I hope our descendants remember that lesson. Because once the pandemic started spreading because we didn’t get a testing regime in place, it was too late, and then the harsher policies became inevitable. The horse was out of the barn, and the game changed for good.

That is from James N. Markels, responding to Don Boudreaux in these comments.

Here is another way to put the broader argument, not my preferred first-order response, but I think significant nonetheless.  Given the way government and public choice work, anything that kills over half a million Americans is going to be a big deal for policy, whether we like it or not (Don should be the first to recognize that government will restrict your liberties for far less than 500k deaths!).  You want the best feasible version of a response, as there isn’t really a stable libertarian response pattern out there.  Trying partial but non-sustainable libertarian approaches will in the end get you more and more statism as the virus keeps on defeating you, deaths rise, and calls for ever-greater state action increase.  A lot of what libertarians don’t like about lockdowns in part stems from the “do nothing” response of the first two months of notice that we Americans had when Covid first appeared in China.